SCHOOL-LEAVERS may find it even harder to get into medicine in the autumn.
Demand for a place remains high and includes many students repeating the Health Professions Admissions Test (HPAT) hoping to improve their scores.
About 3,100 students have registered to sit HPAT, which tests skills such as problem-solving and interpersonal understanding, on February 26.
There are about 640 places available in undergraduate medical schools, but as well as the 3,100 who have registered for HPAT this year, there may be other applicants submitting test results from last year.
The figures are broadly in line with the past two years. However, many of this year's HPAT repeat students already have a good score, but after failing to get a place in 2010, are hoping for even higher marks.
Hundreds of students, both first-time and repeat, have paid €570 each for a preparation course ahead of this year's test, ignoring official advice that it is not possible to prepare for it.
This is the third year that HPAT scores have been used alongside Leaving Certificate /CAO points to determine who gets into medicine.
Students can combine up to 560 CAO points with a maximum of 300 available in HPAT. HPAT was supposed to reduce the advantage enjoyed by those who attended fee-paying schools or so-called "grind schools", or repeated the Leaving Cert to boost their points tally.
In 2009, the first year of HPAT, there was a drop in the number of repeat Leaving Cert students getting into medicine, but, ironically, in 2010, many repeat HPAT candidates succeeded.
The Australian agency, ACER, which administers the test, insists there is little to gain by repeating, but some students have proved them wrong.
The test was intended to take the heat out of the CAO points race by broadening the range of skills tested, but repeat HPAT students were a factor in pushing points up in 2010. The evidence is that the pattern could continue, with the bar being raised higher this year.
Trish McGrath, principal of Cork's Hewitt College, which runs HPAT preparation courses, said the average original score of repeat students preparing to resit the test had risen from 158 in 2010, to 168 this year.
A spokesperson for the Institute of Education, Dublin, said hundreds of students had done their HPAT preparation course since the autumn, including a "not insignificant number" of repeat students.
The Institute advises students that the Leaving Cert remains the cornerstone of any application for undergraduate medicine.